If it were a completely just world, A Face in the Crowd wouldn’t be a nearly forgotten film. It would be rightly recognized as one of the great socio-political satires of American cinema, ranking alongside masterpieces like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Hal Ashby’s Being There. Those films both look as fresh today as they did when they were made, and the same is certainly true of Face, made in 1957 by direstor Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg.
Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is working at a 2-bit Arkansas radio station when we first meet her. She hosts a man-on-the-street show called - You guessed it – “A Face in the Crowd”, and is just trolling for anything interesting when she happens across Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in the local jail. Hung over and uncooperative at first, there’s a little glint in his eye when he hears the world “radio”….and sees Marcia. He sings a song about life as a hobo, and promptly launches a sensation.
Kazan was one of the great actor’s directors, meaning he could coax great performances out of his people, and AFitC is a glorious example of this. Take the decision to cast Andy Griffith as “Lonesone” Rhodes. He was not a star at that time – he was just a lesser known stand-up comic best known as a cast member of Steve Allens' show. Casting him in this role, which is so loud and over-the top was a huge risk, but in looking at the film, it’s perfect. Rhodes’ laugh is so aggressive that it takes his whole body to do it, but Griffith pulls it off.
Neals’ Marcia is also special. Patricia Neal was an actress who was not really a classic beauty, but who somehow managed to convey a smoky, grown-up sensuality. (For a great example, watch Hud sometime). Marcia is a small-time girl working in a small market, but you never doubt for a minute that she’s smart and capable of much, much more. That’s why she and Rhodes hit it off so well. She immediately sees him as the ticket to where she wants to go. When Rhodes uses his show to play a nasty practical joke on the sheriff who threw him in jail, she thinks it’s hilarious.
The character of Lonesome Rhodes is a homespun hillbilly populist, much in the vein of Will Rogers, and Rhodes uses the hick persona to his advantage. He knows what buttons to push. A notable early scene has him pull a black woman off the set and tell her story on the radio. He implores the audience to send 25 cents each to help her out, and they do. The legend grows.
The relationship between Lonesome and Marcia is complex, and is the spine that the whole film is built on. He loves her as the one person who really understands him. Although Lonesome is basically a clown and braggart, when he is with her, he becomes real, and we like him. She is amused by him, at first, but gradually grows more attracted to him, and by what she sees as his pithy, straight from the hip way. When the seduction comes, it is HER who initiates it, not him. She humanizes him, and her love of him absolves him in our eyes for the nagging distrust we feel about him.
There is one character, however who doesn’t quite buy into the growing legend of Lonesome Rhodes, and that is a writer named Mel Miller (Walter Matthau). Matthau plays Miller as one of those great cynical types who just kinda knows what is happening behind the smoke-screen, and he drops a line early on that is telling:
“You gotta be a saint to stand all the power that little box can give you”
Watching Matthau in this film makes you appreciate just how good he was, and what a shame it was that he so often got pigeonholed into Oscar Madison-like “basset hound” roles. Matthau was a smart actor when he got the chance, like as the Cold War hawk in Fail Safe, or his bank robber title character in Charlie Varrick. His Mel was one of those rare occasions that he got to break out and run with something different.
The film starts to take on darker overtones when Lonesome goes to judge a baton twirling contest and becomes enthralled with young Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick). When you watch him devouring the nubile high school girl with his eyes, you start to get a sense of the soul-destroying corruption eating away at him. He runs off to Mexico and marries the teen, mere days after he has told Marcia that we wants to marry HER.
Lonesone is called upon to help facilitate the political career of a dull Congressman with designs on the White House (Marshal Neilan), and oversees him gettin’ a nickname and a hound dog. By now, Rhodes is thinking even larger than being a radio and TV star. He now sees himself as a political titan, able to become the real power behind a President, and is remorseless in dealing with anyone in his way.
The sequences that close the film are darkly ironic and pitch-perfect, as Lonesome is brought down by the person he would have least expected, and by the medium that made him a star. Griffith has a speech in his penthouse at the end that is so overwrought and extravagant that it inches right up to farce - And then jumps on over. That’s what Lonesome is, however – He’s a “Demagogue in Denim”, as Miller calls him, with the pedal to the metal at all times. As he replied early in the film when Marcia remarked that he put his whole self into his laugh:
“Marcia, I put my whole self into everything I do!”